One of the most effective hand-to-hand combat techniques taught today — and one that has become closely identified with the Jewish state that embraced it — Krav Maga – was a product of the Nazi-era streets of pre-World War II Czechoslovakia.
The martial art’s inventor, Imi Lichtenfeld was quite the athlete. Born in Budapest in 1910, he spent his early years training to be a boxer, wrestler and gymnast with his father. The elder Lichtenfeld was also a policeman who taught self-defense. Under his father’s tutelage, Imi won championships in all his athletic disciplines. But fighting in a ring required both people to follow certain rules. Street fights don’t have rules, Imi Lichtenfeld thought, and he wanted to be prepared for that.
At the end of the 1930s, anti-Semitic riots struck Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, where Imi and his family were then living. Like many large cities in the region, the rise of National Socialism, or Nazism, created an anti-Jewish fervor that took young men to the streets to assault innocent and often unsuspecting Jews.
When the streets of his neighborhood became increasingly violent, Lichtenfeld decided to teach a group of his Jewish neighbors some self-defense moves. It came in the form of a technique that would help them protect themselves while attacking their opponent – a method that showed no mercy for those trying to kill the Chosen People.
Young Imi taught his friends what would later be called “Krav Maga.”
Translated as “contact-combat” in Hebrew, Krav Maga is designed to prepare the user for real-world situations. The martial art efficiently attacks an opponent’s most vulnerable areas to neutralize him as quickly as possible, uses everything in arm’s reach as a weapon, and teaches the user to be aware of every potential threat in the area. It developed into one of the most effective hand-to-hand techniques ever devised.
Krav Maga’s widespread use began in the Israel Defence Force, who still train in the martial art. These days, Krav Maga is a go-to fighting style widely used by various military and law enforcement agencies. In 1930s Europe, it was a godsend. Lichtenfeld’s technique taught Bratislava’s Jews how to simultaneously attack and defend themselves while delivering maximum pain and punishment on their attackers.
Imi Lichtenfeld escaped Europe in 1940 after the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia. He arrived in the British Mandate of Palestine in 1942 (after considerable struggles along the way) and was quickly inducted into the Free Czech Legion of the British Army in North Africa. He served admirably and the Haganah and Palmach – Jewish paramilitary organizations that were forerunners of what we call today the Israel Defence Forces – noticed his combat skill right away.
After Israel won its independence, Lichtenfeld gave his now-perfected martial art of Krav Maga to the IDF and became the Israeli Army’s chief hand-to-hand combat instructor. He even modified it for law enforcement and civilians.
Lichtenfeld taught Krav Maga until 1987 when he retired from the IDF. He died in 1998, after essentially teaching the world’s Jewish population how to defend themselves when no one would do it for them.